The tricky problem of the ‘medium friend’

Medium friends are real friends. You share history (such as the same alma mater), circumstances (an employer) or interests (gross jokes, the royal family, thrift stores or squash). Medium friends make you laugh, bring news, offer insights or expertise. But, unlike best friends, medium friends test the limits of your time, love and energy. There are only so many dinners in a week, so many people you can text incessantly. Medium friends prove the lie in every naive attempt to be all things to all people.

And that’s the problem with psychic friends, the invisible lines you draw around them without ever being explicit — to them or even, possibly, to yourself. Reciprocity is the foundation of all friendship: mutual sharing and caring in a context of trust. The tension in psychic friendships is this absence of clarity, which allows for what Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, described in an interview as “asymmetric expectation”: you like your psychic friend less (or more) than he or she likes you. With a lover, a partner, or a very close friend, you can negotiate imbalances, talk out wounds or betrayals. But somehow such conversations feel impossible in the psychic realm.

The anxious silences surrounding psychic friendship are familiar to anyone who’s ever lied about the duration of a business trip to postpone a date on their calendar, and to anyone who’s heard “I’ll call you” too many times. The stakes rise in crises or celebrations, when every lack of clarity—and every skew—becomes apparent. In a personal emergency, the inner circle knows they have to act fast, while acquaintances feel safe commiserating from the sidelines. But psychics circle precariously, unsure of their obligations about how, when, or even whether to act.

When a psychic friend falls ill, do you offer to escort her to an MRI, bring her Bolognese sauce, or do you do nothing at all? Where is the line between Bolognese sauce and nothing? Does the psychic friend belong on the deathbed, offering hugs? Or would a phone call suffice? I once found myself paralyzed by the terminal diagnosis of a psychic friend; I loved her, but we had grown apart and I had no idea how to properly help or offer condolences—to my eternal regret.

R. handled his friend in recovery’s request by setting a weekly reminder in his calendar. When the alarm went off, he’d text her to check in, but just as often, he’d ignore it. R. recognized that his discomfort with this psychic friendship might say more about him than it did about her. “I was trying to examine my own sense of self-importance,” he said. “This person thinks I’m important, so I feel obligated.” Was his excessive role in her life a sign of her dependency or a figment of his ego? They hadn’t discussed it, so he didn’t know.

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